King of the '60s spy shows, The Man from UNCLE made massive stars of Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, two supercool secret agents in constant battle with the evil organisation THRUSH. "We really didn't know what we had on our hands," confessed producer Norman Felton. But what they had, quite simply, was a massive hit, as Jon Abbott explains...
The Man from UNCLE was forged in the heat of the secret agent mania of the mid-'60s; a more fantastical, science fiction variation on the James Bond theme. Indeed, the show was initially conceived as a TV version of 007 - Bond's creator, Ian Fleming, was even involved in the preliminary work - until legal wrangles forced it to morph into something even more outlandish. In the end, it became one of the four pillars of the period's all-pervasive spy craze - the others being The Avengers, Mission: Impossible and 007 himself - and a genuine piece of TV history...
But despite the Fleming connection, the development of smooth secret agent Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn), his dour colleague Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum), and their English boss Mr Alexander Waverly (Leo G Carroll) - not to mention the complex beast that was the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, or UNCLE, itself - ultimately fell to one man, the enormously creative Sam Rolfe.
He located UNCLE's New York base behind the dusty-looking Del Floria's a tailor's shop on the lower East side. It was kept secret from the public, but not from THRUSH, the all-purpose bad guys, who could be seen making one of their periodic raids in the dramatic opening scene of the monochrome pilot, "the Vulcan Affair". By entering a specific changing room and pulling on the clothes peg, the UNCLE agents surreptitiously entered a labyrinth of (then) hi-tech, science-fictional gadgetry. Once inside, a secretary affixed a specific numbered badge to each agent, which granted him access to the UNCLE complex. Although some episodes goofed on procedure, it was supposed to be vital the secretary attached the badge to each visitor - if she didn't, the absence of a chemical on her fingers set off the alarm system.
The Man from UNCLEwas quintessentially a child of its time - both a contemporary "cold war" offering, and an optimistic child of the jet age. By the mid-'60s the Cold War was thawing, albeit slowly, and the technological advances made during World War II were finally being used for constructive business and leisure purposes. The wealthier among us were travelling for pleasure in greater numbers, and the world was opening up - and TV series lie I Spy and The Man from UNCLE reflected this. Like the second, third and fourth seasons of UNCLE, the world was now in colour, and life was about indulgence and adventure.
Thus the series set its storylines all over the world - although, denied the foreign locations of 007 (and even some TV shows like I Spy), this demanded some very clever use of the MGM backlot, where standing sets such as the "New York street" (which housed UNCLE HQ), the "Tarzan jungle," and the "European village" were endlessly redressed to represent the different countries the UNCLE agents visited. Astute viewers would soon become familiar with certain locations - the large mansion, the jungle river and jetty, the heat-scorched courtyard, the tree-lined country road, and the picturesque stone bridge arching over a small river were particularly common. Of course, on the small, fuzzy television sets of the '60s, this over exposure of certain sets wasn't quite as obvious as it would be today...
BUT WAS IT SCIENCE FICTION?
The simple answer is yes. UNCLE was a science fiction organisation - global in scope (it wasn't tied to one country, like MI5 or the CIA) and impossible to imagine existing in the contemporary political climate - as was its main adversary, the enigmatic TRHUSH (eventually defined by one of the many UNCLE novels as the "Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity"). THRUSH, like James Bond's SPECTRE, didn't hide behind the Iron Curtain, but had bases in every country around the world. To step the level of fantasy up a notch, The Man from UNCLE offered viewers a US agent working in harmony with a Russian agent - an escapist set-up if ever there was one.
But there's more. Although aliens or monsters were conspicuous by their absence, fantasy encroached at every turn - and it got more daft as the series went on, with everything from flying saucers to death rays finally making an appearance.
When "The Vulcan Affair" was shot (eight months before filming of the series proper began), many details of the UNCLE mythos had yet to be settled. No-one had decided that Napoleon was going to be Solo's first name, for instance, or what UNCLE would stand for. THRUSH itself was briefly junked as a name, to be replaced with "WASP" (until the producers learned of a UK import called Stingray...), while Illya Kuryakin was only a minor character.
Producer Normal Felton explained that he picked Vaughn for the lead role because, "I was looking for someone who would give... a certain sense of visual sophistication,", while the actor himself joked that he played Solo, "very much like myself, except I'm no hero." Meanwhile, McCallum saw his character rather differently: "Illya is a walking enigma who occasionally runs and jumps," he once joked.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Vaughn followed UNCLE with a career specialising in smarmy villains, while McCallum flitted from the US to the UK and back again for such variable projects as Colditz, Kidnapped, the '40s TV incarnation of The Invisible Man, Sapphire and Steel, and the recent Trainer and VR5. He's done plenty of guest roles too, including recent appearances on seaQuest DSV and Babylon 5, while all-time career highlights include The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Great Escape, and two classic episodes of The Outer Limits.
Meanwhile, Vaughn's best roles have included The Young Philadelphians, The Magnificent Seven, and Bullitt. He was a regular on Gene Roddenberry's pre-Star Trek series, The Lieutenant, too, as well as the Gerry Anderson adventure series The Protectors. Worst moments? Well, they'd have to include an unfunny turn on the short-lived spoof Danger Theatre, and a gruesome regular role in the final disastrous season of The A-Team, which produced an UNCLE tribute episode guest-starring McCallum ("The Say Uncle Affair"). SF work includes the infamous Teenage Caveman, the Roswellian-inspired TV movie Hanger 17, Roger Corman's Battle Beyond the Stars, and the lacklustre Superman III, among others.
Leo Grattan Carroll appeared in the '50s creature feature Tarantula, and the classic Hitchcock thriller North by Northwest, while his TV work included the '50s fantasy sitcom Topper. He died in 1972.
SO, WAS IT ANY GOOD?
Yes, it was brilliant - a classic all-action, tongue-in-cheek romp, full of glamour and thrills. But you had to be there...
A few things you probably didn't know about...THE MAN FROM UNCLE
Many names were bandied about during casting for Napoleon Solo, including (heaven forbid) William Shatner, but only Robert Culp (of I Spy) was offered the role before Vaughn.
After UNCLE, David McCallum - for a time - received more fan mail than any other MGM star, in film or TV...
When the series became chic, pop groups and singers, including Nancy Sinatra and Sonny and Cher, turned up in storylines...
When David McCallum made a public appearance at the famous Macy's department store in New York, a whopping 15,000 fans turned up instead of the expected 3,000 to meet him. It caused such a ruck, the city had to be effectively "closed" for several hours to enable cops to clear the streets of adoring Illya fanatics!
The small guns carried by the female agents in UNCLE headquarters were really only water pistols!
Like the Batmobile and Batcycle, the famous UNCLE car of the later seasons was, in reality, completely impractical to drive. "I don't think it ever ran ten feet without completely falling apart," said one producer. "We could follow it round the studio by the oil it left behind it..."
The Man from UNCLE spawned a spin-off, The Girl from UNCLE, which lasted an (overlong) 29 episodes, and starred Stephanie Powers as a sort of female Napoleon Solo named April Dancer, and Rex Harrison's son, Noel, as English agent Mark Slate.